Her aunt used to tell her that nothing was pure.  As a sophomore cop, she believed that her aunt, while sweet and well-intentioned and full of empathy (no one was “all bad” etc.), would not have a made a good law enforcement officer.  There existed boundaries and lines and rule books and that was how those charged with safeguarding the social contract were able to be effective—without the superstructure of hard lines, society would sag, the joists would snap, and life as everyone knew it would be gone in a poof of pink vapor in one day’s fucking time.  She’d seen it happen, or at least the aftermath: a driver run a red in the small hours of the morning and T-bone a tipsy teenager on a bicycle.  A past partner that had been distracted by a divorce who misfired his weapon and ended the life of a toddler nine months into his first assignment.  The ignored “check engine light” that presaged a slipping head gasket that occasioned a fiery wreck that ate the lives of her grandfather, a young couple in another car, and a dumb, valiant Samaritan that tried to brave the flames.  She had a whole arsenal of evidence for how not respecting rules led to disaster.  Her uniform was ironed and her ponytail was tight and her gun was oiled.  She drove the tension of her work into heavy bags three times per week to prevent a slip up with a defiant suspect.  She drank one glass of Merlot per day.  She wiped down her dashboard once per week. She met Leo on the first night of patrol in a new neighborhood.  She lived 15 miles north of the city limit and therefore found herself patrolling the grimy expanse of state highway a few miles south of the city limit—the department had rotated officers so they could claim they were honoring the idea of policing their own communities.  It was a place of decrepit fast food franchises, pawn shops, liquor stores, auto parts dealers, cheap motels, hardware stores serving as fronts for meth rings, strip clubs, dive bars, milling clots of day laborers and addicts and the like—a strip of urban American stereotype and she loathed it, the way it offended all of her sensibilities and indeed seemed to breed chaos and disorder, in the form of stumble bums and reckless driving and the palming to and fro of shadow things.  Leo stood with a straight spine on the sidewalk outside of a Jack in the Box, the bleed of the marquee coloring his high cheekbones with a rose hue.  He wore a beanie style hat that stuck straight up, a smooth black windbreaker, creased blue jeans and spotless shell-toed Adidas.  He was perfectly symmetrical, even how he held his hands at the midpoint of his chest, fingers intertwined, thumb pads pushing against each other.  He sported a pencil thin goatee and chinstrap and the long lashes on his sleepy, large eyes were long enough to curl upward.  As she circled the block the second time, he let his gaze slide over her windshield and softly caught her own.  She told herself her heart hammered as she cut rubber around the block again because he was a suspicious character and she watched her mind tick off the rationale for parking close in the restaurant’s lot on her next pass: young, male (omit Hispanic/poss African American), idle/loitering on public thoroughfare, 12:03 a.m., dress consistent with possible gang membership, drug trafficking activity, etc.  She watched her hand rise from the butt of her Glock to straighten her ponytail.  She felt her exaggerated cop-stride toward him, but felt within it the ghost of a hip switch.  She asked him what his business was.  He told her he was waiting for a ride home from his uncle.  She asked how long he’d been waiting and he painted the night sky with his eyelashes as he gazed up, blinking, calculating.  Two hours.  The way his eyelashes lifted as he blinked at her, painted her in a light sheen of sweat as he wondered if maybe she could give him a ride—it was a rough area, and he didn’t want to get into any kind of trouble.  An hour later, as her fourth orgasm receded in pulses through her thighs, her face pressed to a Formica table top on which her pistol and his pistol and a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue vogued in a tableau of vice, she would wish that she hadn’t requested his ID, hadn’t seen that he was just shy of his 17th birthday, hadn’t thereby eradicated any shred of pretension that the world wasn’t just as gray as her aunt had always insisted; she would wish that she could find a way to believe that she wasn’t all bad.




Monday Morning in America

It’s another Monday morning in America and someone is blowing leaves.  They are soggy and heavy and so the diesel huff of the machine that must blow them labors like a foghorn through the filters of walls and windows.  The man or woman (let’s face it, it’s almost definitely a Latino man) no doubt wears large ear protection, flame orange or forest green probably, and he aims the snout of his laborious machine back and forth like a metal detector, creating little mulchy mountains of sopping, heavy, red, brown and yellow.  He thinks as he does this about his life.  He has the debt on the credit cards to move around—one pile to another.  He has the boxes of family memorabilia to move around—from one room to another.  He has the troubles in his marriage to move around—from one conflict to the next.  He has the physical ailments that move around—a tweaked shoulder heals to reveal a sore sciatic nerve.  Where the fuck do the leaves go?  Eventually, he knows, they disintegrate into sludge, a viscous liquid that can be washed down sewer drains to join the clearer runoff from the many deluges the city hosts in this season.  But, still, they are ultimately leaves, are they not?  Even if in miniscule particle and imperceptive to the eye somewhere out in the heaving black ocean, there is still something of the maple leaf there.  He can’t decide whether this notion gives him relief or despair.  There is the possibility of both—lightening at the thought of permanence, burdening at that same.  He finds a banana yellow leaf improbably propped by circumstances of wind and other leaves against the mostly denuded trunk of one young maple.  The leaf is nearly bone dry.  He cuts off his blower and unearths a Bic from his cargo pant pocket, holds the flame steady until the leaf catches and a cautious line of fire slowly defeats the dampness, curling the whole thing into a frail skeleton of ash.  He crushes this in his fist, wipes his palms together until all that is left of the leaf is a tiny ball of gray-black.  He doesn’t hesitate or fight the urge, just pops it into his mouth and swallows the acrid crumb.  He cuts his blower back on and goes back to work, feeling, from time to time, his guts working their acid to disappear forever what was just second ago a piece of the world.  Later, he will go home and step over the boxes of his children’s kindergarten art waiting for a home in the entryway.  He will smile at his wife and kiss her—to her surprise—when she greets him with a gripe about the lack of cooking oil in the house.  He will stretch out on the floor of his apartment and wait for one of his small children to climb on top of him and explore his face with her hands and eyes and tomorrow he’ll go to the next street on which leaves obscure the path.



The young woman had caught a jetliner east to Jersey to spend the Holidays with her “best friend,” the term that she used both genuinely and euphemistically with her Mormon mother; genuinely because it was true and euphemistically because she was also the young woman’s lover or at least had been in the now-long-gone-days of Rutgers. They had scuttled their erotic passion for a passionate social media, Skype and text message friendship as the young woman slid into a bland career of marketing nearby her divorced (the scandal!) Mormon (perhaps…unwell) mother and her Jersey lover skated easily into the Queer bohemia of the Tristate. So, the Holidays of 2006-2007 broke onto the horizon pregnant with possibility and already haunted by hope.


And Christmas Day broke upon the two young lovers with a splintered gold and blue sky magic that sent them into a mania that would, before the night fell, include hi-jinks and escapades: dining and dashing from a greasy spoon in SOHO with the excuse that they had forgotten their purses at the hotel; tongue kissing atop a sidewalk vent with impractical skirts billowing like Marilyn Monroe’s and cabbies cat-calling with their horns; rifling a strangely open retro clothing shop for Audrey Hepburn costumes in which to linger at 5 star hotel bars, sipping cosmopolitan after cosmopolitan; gobbling hot slices feverishly on a frozen bench at Washington Square Park, pillbox hats askew, cigarette holders tucked behind reddened ears as the greasy shadows began to grow long. They paused only for the young woman to dial her Mormon mother twice on her Samsung Galaxy and leave sweet, tipsy apologetic messages that did not acknowledge the mother’s jilted anger at being “abandoned for the holidays.”


So it was markedly horrific in that way that only the promise of mania jilted and sabotaged by the plunge into darkness can be when the women lost track of each other outside an Irish Bar in the West Village and the young woman from Mormon country was discovered by a dishwasher in the small hours of December 26th with clothes and throat ripped in unnecessarily thorough manner, her lifeblood pooling beneath a dumpster.


The Mormon mother blamed the Jersey lover, of course, and how could she not? The Jersey lover blamed herself for without the distraction of a small bladder and a shot of Jameson proffered by a kindly Indian businesswoman, she might have not dallied in the elbowed interior of that bar while her lover slipped out the door for a smoke and toward her awful end. And so she forewent attendance of the young woman’s funeral. The Jersey lover respected the mother’s sorrow and did not disturb it by any intention for a full year. She tucked herself away into a pocket of her old life and ate Xanax and made it till tomorrow until one night she knew she might not and in a stumble fury dialed her dead lover’s phone number in the vague hope that she could at least hear her voicemail greeting and scream pain or apology or perhaps rage into the virtual mailbox.


The mother, possessed by a similar longing to, a), somehow connect with her gone daughter via telephone and, b), somehow aid the apprehension of the person responsible for her brutal death (as if they would for some reason call the number), had kept the worse-for-wear Samsung Galaxy that NYPD detectives had delivered up to her in a jumbo size Ziploc along with lipstick, tiny sequined purse, Virginia Slim Light 100s, and six orange tic-tacs. So she snatched up every ring that came in, fielding calls from clueless classmates, from advertising execs, from telemarketers, always with urgency, always with a hello? that said, instead, who are you and what have you done? The Jersey lover, to her credit, paused and bit through the cognitive fog of Xanax and rapid-cycling grief and spoke the Mormon mother’s name aloud, for the first time in her life, as a question:




And though neither party got what they had wished for when their hands punched the numbers in hopeless ritual reaching, they did find one another and they did weep together on the line and they did share stories deep into the late winter night and they did seed a relationship that would come to resemble something like that between a mother and her daughter.

How to Slip Your Cage



For survivors of Narconon and the Church of Scientology

First, pretend to be delighted that you get to enter. If you buck and fight, it will only end in your blood spilt and a longer time until you are ultimately free. If you buck and fight, they will take the violence out of you and turn it against you so that your first couple of days in the cage will be spent on the ground (not that there is anywhere else to be) and in agony—trust me, I made the wrong choice. So you must enter willingly, will forth a tear if they don’t flow naturally, act relieved to finally be getting the help you need.


Second, do not look for a comfortable place to arrange your body. You will not find it. There are no chairs, no bunks, not even so much as a ledge to perch your ass upon. You have a floor and walls with the uneven roll of hand-hewn log cabin, so leaning your spine against them is no relief. You have to figure out how to sit on a dirty wooden floor in a way that doesn’t produce agony or, if like me, this is impossible—with all the bruises and scrapes—you have to learn how to sit through agony. This is probably the best thing, so in that case, if you need an extra dose of agony to create the necessity of sitting through it, disregard step #1.


Third, eat the vitamin blasts that they push on you through the cracked door as if there were the most delicious fucking snack you’ve ever tasted. Suck down the horse pill capsules like they are pieces of your lover whom you can only save by devouring. Feel the gritty work of those capsules in your abdomen, the slow slink of a hundred doses of vitamins into your veins. Trust not that they are good for you, not in their claims that they will silence the voices in your head or extinguish the gnawing need for dope, but trust that compliance is your only hope of escape and so swallow those fuckers.


Fourth, defecate and urinate in the bucket. Do not succumb to urges to paint arcs on the dark wall. It will not spite them because you will be forced to live with the stench and ultimately clean it up. Do not succumb to this also because it will make you appear yet more deranged and will extend the time you spend in your cage.


Fifth, when they bring stacks of paper to sign, sign. Do not ask questions and do not try to read the tiny font in the weak light that slices a rectangle around the door. Do not attend to useless thoughts about your rights, or lack thereof, or the meaning of your signature on those many pages. Refusing to sign, or asking questions or trying to read the tiny font, even, will probably earn you another blast of vitamins and another day at least to consider the foolishness of resistance.


Sixth, when the voices get louder, listen closer. Because here’s the thing: the voices are your own. And even if they’ve landed you in a lot of trouble in the past, when you’re locked in a cage breathing feces in the dark for long enough, jailed by people with blind faith, no mercy, ballpoint pens and vitamin blasts, the voices will begin to serve you instead of betray you. The voices will tell you the truth: that these people are not going to let you out until you deny your voices. That these people are not going to let you out until you profess that your cravings for dope have subsided.


Seventh, if the voices guide you, obey them. If they say to scream out in agony, do so. If they say to scream for mercy, do so. If they tell you to mutter gratitude to your captors, do so. If they tell you to remain silent for long stretches, do so.


Eighth, when you no longer expect the door to open, expect the door to open.


Ninth, when the door opens, remain still and make an attempt to smile.


Tenth, when they ask you if you think you are ready to come out, tell them you think you need just a little bit longer.




The light of the carousel is not kind. It’s the kind of light you’d expect in a dentist’s office, not searing down onto the fantastical hoop of painted ponies bobbing on brass poles and delighted, red-nosed toddlers. It seems that every carousel I’ve ever seen has one sleigh on it—a flat bench that might fit a small family, just in case someone not able or willing to scramble up the slick plastic side of a horse wanted aboard. I stand between two ponies, my palms on the lower backs of my son and his friend. We are directly behind the sleigh. After the first couple of revolutions, a few dozen squeals of joy from my kiddo and the dozens around us, I finally notice the woman on the sleigh. She’s wide, white-haired, somewhere amid a rocky seventy-something years. Her jacket is cheap flannel and a dusting of what might be flour rides her right shoulder. Her hair has segregated itself into greasy clumps. At her side are the rumpled, hard-held bags responsible for the ugly title that pops in my mind as flashbulbs pop around us: bag lady. She crosses one leg over the other and leans back, her slab of worn face aimed out into the night, over the heads of all the whooping, waving parents. No matter what scape the carousel presents her with—damp wall of a department store, squads of bike cops massing for an impending protest, the sixty-foot Evergreen the mall has garishly decorated, even Macy’s brilliant North Star—her expression never shifts, nor does her gaze. She takes what she’s presented with, every once in a while lifting a thick, ragged thumbnail to her teeth. She’s spent three dollars for this sleigh on this carousel. She’s spent three dollars to go around and around wrapped in cruel light with children’s laughter spilling around her. The thought that she represents the inverse of childhood, of joy feels ugly, but there it is. Maybe the carousel is a reminder to her of a long-lost child—her own, or herself. Maybe her cloudy eyes are seeing something after all. She’s a reminder, maybe, to us young parents to not just let ourselves and our children be carried round and round and round until all we are left with, like her, is memory.

The Traveling Ashes



When the fires began nobody was thinking about ashes. When the fires began everyone was thinking about flames. To be more direct, everyone was thinking about what those flames would do to them or their loved ones or their house or their stash of ganja or fine merlots if given the chance to get that close. And get that close the flames did. They licked towns like dogs lick paws, but with none of the Zen focus. On the contrary, the licking of the towns in the valley—which was formed by a radical V of highly incendiary scrub pine and brush lands—was chaotic and loud. People speak of natural disasters as separate entities: flood, earthquake, tsunami, etc. What only people who have been licked by wildfire know is that fires are more than fires, they are also storms. When the skies darkened more fully at 5 p.m. than they would normally at midnight that July afternoon, the preview couldn’t have been more clear. And that was the horrific thing: dark skies were the preview and before anyone had time to suck one last full breath of summer air, their lungs were constricted by acrid smoke, red hot embers whirled in tornado gusts around their heads and the heat index soared as fast as the hawks abandoning roosts—babies and all—for the east. The hawks were the first ones to carry the ash away.

The Return

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October 6th, 2014, 12:03, CSTC


On my way down Steilacoom Boulevard, approaching Western State Hospital and CSTC, I was listening to a podcast about a man who discovered as an adult that his mysterious father was most likely the Zodiac killer that rained horror on the country for decades, torturing and slaughtering dozens of people. His story was inconclusive; the man will never meet his father because he died twenty years ago. The soundtrack of the podcast kicked on as I turned onto the campus: the razor wire winking in the middle distance, the dilapidated cottages that front the place, seemingly abandoned, the drab landscape of insitutionalism. Fat Canadian Geese tried to block my way, like protesters but rather poorly organized. Inside of the school, I knew, were children—children with wild imaginations, bright if sometimes shattered eyes, children with stories to tell and poems to write, about fantasies, about traumas and about hopes. The clank and mutter of staff managing the morning’s crises greeted me at the abandoned front desk; a young man shouted obscenities from a quiet room. There is so much life and love to be celebrated here. I can’t imagine the weight of turning keys all day nor of hearing the deadbolt drop. They will kick walls and scream, many of these children, maybe a few less if we can reach back, down, inward, forward or up for the language that will make violence evaporate. For the words on the page that staunch bleeding in the mind. Another life is possible for these children, but unlike the son of the Zodiac killer, they don’t get to grow up in ignorance. Can we help carve the edges off the awful things they already know? Can we pull those things out of them like tumors?



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The Denny Way/Broad Street exit off of 99 during morning rush hour feeds vehicles into a gridlocked bottleneck Seattle-style.  You are not merely surrounded by construction cones and signs—blazes of orange—and a few lackadaisical flaggers always smoking for some reason. It’s a virtual dystopian clusterfuck panorama: the broadside of a half-gutted, half-built condo tower that can’t help but remind one of the Death Star; lanes doglegged into zags as if by some divine civic hammer to make room for the elbows of as-yet unlaid lanes; banana yellow construction cranes framed by narrow alleys, poised to drop in or lift out a dose of steel.  Pushing back against all of this novelty are old Seattle icons: the pink neon elephant spins as ever; the space needle lays down its hypodermic shadow; the monorail chugs glumly now below much instead of above most, a depressed septuagenarian caterpillar. 

            The men who stalk the off-ramp with cardboard signs for spare change are arguably both new and old Seattle.  They have sometimes vanished due to inaudible clicks of the social service economy or city policy.  They have often reappeared in larger numbers, more haggard than before.  Today the Asker clasped the cardboard plea to his parka with one hand, a bag full of corn chips with the other, pausing to cast handfuls skyward.  Desperate gulls wheeled and screeched against the winter sun like a tribe’s ritual appeal for good favor.  The man grinned and tossed, watching the faces of commuters for reaction, reading our impressions of his wild dance of charity, hoping maybe for the same from us but delighting regardless in the rain of corn chips and gull shit on hybrid hoods, the vapor of his breath in the splintered gold of the sunrays.  One old bird perched tranquilly on his shoulder, too dignified to beg.  Just waiting for the light to change, for the man to reverse course, for our wheels to turn, for the offering, lifted to his beak.  



When I met God he told me you’d be surprised at the way it all shakes out these days, how virtue and vice lend each other ballast.  The depths of spirit that contradiction and hypocrisy sometimes suggest if you can—as he can—just lift the silly veil of those concepts, which are, after all, flimsy, cycled so many times through our bullshit puritanical washer.  No, God told me, while he might conjure a friendly nod for adherents to black and white Good as they giddily slog their way through the pearly gates (these are useful but inaccurate symbols, of course, as they always have been: pearly gates, God as he, etc.), but it bores him.  He finds himself most passionate about border-dancing souls regardless of where the gravity and gusts of this world ultimately cause them to land: in his cloudy grove of bliss or the fiery pits below (God sounded particularly bored with this last symbolic illustration and I sensed that if he’d had the energy he might have made quotation marks in the air around it).  He experiences a rush of the sacred now only when he can usher a controversial case into everlasting peace.  The monk who spends all week on robed knees, then bullies a Harley through the hills come Saturday, a Sig Sauer strapped to his hip.  The feminist wonk cutting her way verbally through seminar rooms and news shows who submits powerfully to brutal gangbangs when she clocks out.  The pro bono abortionist doc braving picket lines, who decided at age sixteen that he’d never be party to the medical liquidation of his own seed again.  The psychotherapist weed whacking and vine chopping through dark and tangled psyches toward fragile truths, who closes his door at night to watch back to back episodes of Lost.  The vegan yoga guru and insight meditation instructor deep into her six-pack and blunt at one a.m.  The cop that thrashes abusive husbands in the squad car.  Etc.  No, it’s not rigid adherence, not dogmatic integrity, not fanatical embrace of virtue or literal acceptance of scripture that make God’s heart skip a beat these days.  Maybe he’s just gotten old, God said, but things have changed.  And he shook my hand, but also told me that despite himself he’d probably feel a certain pleasure—definitely a thrill—when they dropped the hood over me and threw that switch.